Full Moon Newsletter vol 20: Fierce Grace – The Story of Holī

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Splatters of bright colors, water gun fights, and giant bonfires – today marks the celebration of one of the most iconic festivals in the tradition – Holī! This year, we’re toning it down a bit because there’s a lunar eclipse. As we mentioned in our last newsletter, eclipses are not auspicious and while you can still celebrate, it’s a good idea to party in moderation as the energy can be chaotic.

The most famous Holī tradition is running around tagging everyone in sight with vibrantly colored powders. It’s a bit like Halloween – if someone refuses to play, you can pull a prank on them, and/or tag them anyway. If they get mad, you shrug, smile, and say “It’s Holī”! 🙂

Historically, it was one of the few days where everyone was equal – men, women, and children, regardless of economic or political status, could all join in the fun. There are even sacred art images of Lord Kṛṣṇa spraying colors on his companions, the gopīs, and his beloved Rādhā.

In India, where it’s the middle of summer and temperatures in many places are above 100F/41C, there’s the added element of water gun fights. The colored powders (which are traditionally organic and plant-derived) can also be mixed with water and used to cover everyone – and everything – in sight. The world melts into dancing colors.

Behind this day of celebration is a profound story of devotion, integrity, and the force of divine compassion. There’s many layers to it, and each time you reflect on it, you might gain new insight. So with that, let’s begin:

Once upon a time, there was a demon-king named Hiraṇyakaśipu. After many years of spiritual practice, Brahmā granted him one wish. The demon-king wanted immortality, but since that was not possible, he made a clever request. He asked that he not be killed neither in the day nor in the night; neither inside nor outside; not on the ground nor in the sky; not by any weapon; nor by any human being, animal, celestial being, demigod, demon, snake-being, or any other creature in the realms.

Satisfied that this covered all the bases, he returned to his kingdom. Since no one could kill him, he quickly established himself as ruler of all beings. Some time later, he had a son named Prahlāda. Prahlāda was a very pure-hearted and sweet child who had tremendous love and devotion for the great lord Viṣṇu, who is the embodiment of dharma and the absolute, and the one being his father truly hated. Viṣṇu (i.e. Supreme Presence Himself) was the only one truly beyond Hiraṇyakaśipu’s domain – a fact the demon-king was unable to tolerate.

What made matters worse was that no matter how hard Hiraṇyakaśipu tried, his son refused to accept that he was greater and more powerful than the Lord. Fed up with the boy’s disrespect, he decided to murder Prahlāda. Somehow, the boy proved immune to every attempt. Prahlāda’s devotion miraculously protected him even when his father sent elephants to trample him, or had him thrown off of a mountain.

Finally, the king’s demon-sister Holikā reminded him of a magical power she had, a siddhi, that she had gained through years of austerity and yogic practice. She could not be burned by fire, and so she suggested that she hold young Prahlāda on her lap, and a huge bonfire be lit, and she would prevent him from escaping. On the full moon day, they built a huge pyre. However, the next morning, they saw Prahlāda scamper out of the ashes, and that Holikā had burned instead.

The demon-king, enraged, asked Prahlāda one final time if he still believed that Viṣṇu was the supreme being, and greater and more powerful than him. The boy answered truthfully, “Yes, I do”. Snarling with rage at this response, Hiraṇyakaśipu took his mace and smashed a pillar shouting, “If he’s so omnipotent and so omnipresent, is he in this pillar too?!” Prahlāda again said, “Yes, He is everywhere”.

There was a huge sound, and at that moment, out of the pillar emerged an enormous half-human, half-lion creature – Narasiḿha, (nara – man; siṁha – lion).

It was Lord Viṣṇu Himself.

Narasiṁha leapt towards the throne and grabbed Hiraṇyakaśipu. Dragging him to the threshold (neither inside nor outside), he lifted him up to his thighs (neither on earth nor in the sky), and ripped him apart with his bare claws (using no weapons), just as it became twilight (neither day nor night).

Afterwards, Narasiṁha gently blessed Prahlāda, and to everyone’s joy and great relief, had him crowned as the king. Prahlāda went on to become a dharmic and just leader, and ruled for many years.

So, before we continue, take a moment now to reflect on this story, and also what stands out for you. If you like, you can share your insights with us by replying to this email. 🙂

Holī is the day that Holikā was burned in the fire of her own pride and darkness. It’s a reminder to us that if we use power or insight we’ve gained from sacred practice in order to violate dharma, it’s only going to backfire back on us. There needs to be purity and alignment in our intentions and actions!

Another major underlying principle is that you cannot use your intellect to try to “outsmart” and manipulate the divine. Both Hiraṇyakaśipu and Holikā tried to get away with violating natural law (taking over all the realms, hurting a child, and trying to cheat death). Instead, the divine took a profoundly unnatural form and destroyed them.

Narasiṁha is an iconic representation of the supreme protector and of divine wrath. There’s no limit to his ferociousness. We can take comfort in knowing that the divine will do whatever it takes to protect us, even if it means bending natural laws. The sacred is not a passive power in this tradition, and it regularly intervenes however it needs to in order to restore balance and consciousness. To those who are virtuous and aligned with truth, the divine can be experienced as pure love and a refuge. To everyone else, he’s scarier than the demons themselves.

Practice: Celebrate Pure Life-Essence

Mythology depicts eternal patterns and aspects of the self, and consciousness as a whole. When we hear a myth, we can reflect on what it is trying to show us about ourselves and our world. Even as we participate in Holī games and festivities this year, we can stay aware of what the deeper meaning behind the traditions are. Suggested practices for today are:

Re-enact the burning of Holikā by lighting a bonfire (safely, please)! As the fire burns, let yourself experience that all of your pride, darkness, fear, and greed are burning, while your pure and innocent essence is being protected. You can also do pradakṣinā, where you walk around the fire clockwise out of respect.

Once the flames die down, place a pot of water on the coals and leave it out under the full moon. The next morning, you can use that water in your shower or bath, again experiencing that your inner pride and manipulative tendencies are being washed away.

Throw colors on each other. You can use non-toxic (and ideally organic) colored powder or paints. If nothing else, just turmeric and kumkum powder is fine! The colors represent life energy, and splattering each other is a way of wishing each other vitality, good health, and beauty. If you want company, most major cities around the world have some sort of Holī games available.

Reflect or journal about the story of Holī. You can imagine that each character is actually an aspect of you. You can ask yourself, What part of me is humble and trusting? How has my faith protected me? What part of me is greedy and prideful, and seeking to win no matter the cost? What part of me is willing to use my spiritual power or wisdom to hurt others and defend my pride? What form has divine wrath taken in my life, and in me? Where am I resisting surrendering my personal will to divine will? Etc.

Perform pūjā, chant to, or meditate on Lord Narasiṁha. If you are dealing with prideful, manipulative, and greedy energies, either in yourself or others, invoking Lord Narasiṁha invites protection and a fierce form of grace. It also awakens within you the ability to access divine anger and defend yourself and others from wrongful harm.

-This festival is also associated with the love between Lord Kṛṣṇa and his beloved Rādhā. Singing songs of praise or dancing for them is also wonderful!

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